“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, November 24, 2007

For taxonomy


(from James Leon's series, Psychopathia Sexualis)



IT has recently been writing about Sade and Pornography and taxonomy – which of course brings out my inner fetishist. I get all drooly about… taxonomy.

“One of the best things about early 20th-century erotic photograph is its lack of taxonomy. Contemporary pornography has more categories than there are dirty thoughts in the world, and yet it fails in one crucial respect - it can no longer surprise. You can be into women who look like cats who specialise in shaving biscuits whilst bouncing up and down on trampolines, and there'd probably be a website that could cater to your needs, but once you've seen a couple of cat-women shaving biscuits whilst bouncing on trampolines surely you've seen them all. The excessive taxonomical drive of contemporary pornography is merely one element of its quest to bore us all to death and remind us that everything is merely a form of work, including, or even most especially, pleasure.”


Myself, I want to disagree with this a bit, because I think IT is underdetermining the taxonomic drive. Although I think she is right that porno embraces specialization, I don’t think you can locate that drive merely in contemporary pornography as a new form of thing. I'd argue that all modern porno, going back to the end of the French revolution, is tied in one way or another to taxonomy. In the case of the early 20-th century, the porno she is referring to comes on the heels of the great explosion in sexual types associated with people like Krafft-Ebbing, and picked up by Freud, and by bohemian culture very quickly. The types included – as Jonathan Katz notes in The Invention of the Heterosexual – heterosexuality itself, which was introduced into the U.S. in the 1890s by a psychologist who referred to the thing as an “abnormal manifestation of the sexual appetite.”

There’s a scene in Wyndham Lewis’ satire of Bloomsbury, the Apes of God, in which a prim little girl of twelve, sitting in her father’s garden, is reading a thick book. An adult approaches her to ask what it is. Is it Charles and Mary Lamb’s Shakespeare for Children? Robinson Crusoe? No, it turns out to be the Psychopathia Sexualis. The joke worked – back then – because the book had gained both a scholarly and popular notoriety, with the popular audience coalescing around a genteel form of sexual enlightenment, a la Freud, Havelock Ellis, and science. Always science. In sexology, as indeed in psychology, the anxiety that the field was a science was assuaged, among practitioners, by the production of taxonomies without end – and, unfortunately, without any central principle. In the world of Darwinian evolution and the periodic table, surely the royal road to science was to produce tables – tables that would characterize mental illnesses, tables that would characterize the different degeneracies of criminals, tables that would bring the human appetite for sexual pleasure into the pleasing order of family, genera, species.

Krafft-Ebbing's style is a sort of cross between court reporting and the Arabian Nights. It has a gloss of dull prurience that is unintentionally and irresistibly... funny. Although one does sympathize with the collection of specimens, each locked into his hidy hole of sexual fevers. Here, for example, is how case 102 starts:

Case 102. Hair-fetichism. Mr. X., between thirty and forty years old; of the higher class of society; single. Came of a healthy family, but from childhood had been nervous, vacillating and peculiar; since his eighth year he had been powerfully attracted by female hair. This was particularly true in the case of young girls. When he was nine years old, a girl of thirteen seduced him. He did not understand it, and was not at all excited. A twelve-year- old sister of this girl also courted, kissed, and hugged him. He allowed this quietly, because this girl's hair pleased him so well. When about ten years old, he began to have erotic feelings at the sight of female hair that pleased him.

Gradually these feelings occurred spontaneously, and memory-pictures of girl's hair were always immediately associated with them. At the age of eleven he was taught to masturbate by school-mates.”

Of course, from such beginnings, Mr. X is only going to go downhill, first into crime: “Not infrequently, in the street and in crowds, he could not keep from imprinting a kiss on ladies' heads, he would then hurry home to masturbate. Sometimes he could resist this impulse; but it was then necessary for him, filled with feelings of fear, to run away as quickly as possible, in order to escape the domination of his fetich, he was only once impelled to cut off a girl's hair in a crowd.” But in this case, there is a happy ending: “He drank large quantities,
had alcoholic delirium, an attack of alcoholic epilepsy, and required hospital treatment. After the intoxication had passed away, under appropriate treatment, the sexual excitement soon disappeared; and when the patient was discharged, he was freed from his fetichistic idea, save for its occasional occurrence in dreams. The physical examination showed normal genitals and no degenerative signs whatever.” Thank god for that! Mr. X wavers, obviously, between the subspecies of hair despoilers and those who, like another X, case 99, loved only men with large bushy moustaches (99’s story is less anxiety producing than 102: One day he met a man who answered his ideal. He invited him to his home, but was unspeakably disappointed when this man removed an artificial mustache. Only when the visitor put the ornament on the upper lip again, he exercised his charm over X. once more and restored him to the full possession of virility.”

“Fetishism” had first been applied by Binet to cases of sexual distraction from the full possession of one’s virility, but Krafft-Ebbing popularized it – and of course he is credited with naming masochism, sadism, hetero and homo sexuality and the like. What interests me, here, is the difference of this taxonomical impulse from the utopian taxonomies of Charles Fourier, who was also a great namer and arranger. I will do a post on these soon.

Meanwhile, there is now a film version of the Psychopathia Sexualis that I think will satisfy even IT’s demand for the reinvigoration of pornography through early twentieth century techniques. If you have never seen a shadow play depicting the rather sad but highly moral story of Sergeant Bertrand, necrophiliac – and I know you want to! you should run, not walk, to Bret Wood and Tracy Martin’s site.

Friday, November 23, 2007

no assets no income no job - Look ma, I'm a ninja!


Kimmy Simon, left, and her friend, Tate Madden, try to keep warm under a blanket early this morning before the opening of a Best Buy store in Cincinnati, Ohio. - NYT


Since this is the first day of real real shopping, LI wants to get inject just the right amount of grinch into the jollity of the day. But how [he said, tapping his long green fingers with the long green nails] can I make those awful Whos suffer?

Business week has a story about the projected shrinkage of consumer spending. It’s an astonishing beast, that American consumer. There has been only one down quarter since 1981:

“It's been a glorious run for the consumer. In the past 25 years, Americans have kept shopping through good times and bad. In every quarter except one since 1981, consumer spending rose over the previous year, adjusted for inflation. The exception was the first quarter of 1991, and even then the decrease was a mild 0.4% dip.”

The projection of a cutback in spending is based on the projection that housing prices will fall, with every dollar less in the price of a house matched by 9 cents less spending – or so the pretend figures go. Thus, we are looking at maybe 200 to 300 billion dollars less spending next year.

Or so saith the cautious spoilsports. Others still see a rainbow, as big and broad as all outdoors:

Will the consumer crunch spread to the rest of the economy? Conventional wisdom is that consumer spending makes up 70% of gross domestic product. While technically true, that figure is deceptive, because so much of what Americans buy these days is made overseas. Compared with the early 1980s, which was the last time consumers cut back, much more of what Americans buy is made abroad. Today, imports of consumer goods and autos run about $740 billion a year. That's fully one-third of consumer spending on goods outside of food and energy. As a result, most of the spending cutbacks won't cost Americans their factory jobs--those factory jobs have mostly fled offshore anyway. Workshop China, in contrast, will get hurt.

What's more, it's still a low-rate world for most nonfinancial corporations, which have access to relatively cheap funds for expansion and capital investment. Asia and Europe are continuing to expand, with German and French growth accelerating in the third quarter. Exports of aircraft and other big items are likely to rise, too, supplying the U.S. economy with an extra lift. In other words, globalization has made consumers less central to the American economy.

Still, the consumer recession will hit some parts of the economy harder than others. Particularly at risk are retailers, who have already seen sharp declines in their stock prices since the extent of the subprime crisis became clear. Nordstrom shares, for example, fell from 52 in September to as low as 32 before rebounding. On Nov. 14, Macy's cut its sales forecast for the fourth quarter, sending its stock down to $28 a share from $43 in July. "Retailers are looking to pare inventories," says Rosenberg.

Not everyone thinks American shoppers are tapped out. Consumers have about $4 trillion in unused borrowing capacity on their credit cards, enough to keep spending afloat, points out Stuart A. Feldstein, president of SMR Research in Hackettstown, N.J., which studies consumer loan markets.”

Four trillion dollars to go – we can’t stop now! We are still swimming in yolk – everything is rich and sweet here in the New World. The Whos need to get their Woofers, their drums and their little Who bugles! Or fuck that – think bigger. Mamma needs a new pair of shoes, preferably an adorable 390 dollar pair of Bettye Muller Coast Pumps. And baby sooo definitely needs a Nintendo Wii that he was torn out of the womb already shrieking and screaming for one.

In the NYT, there is an article by Floyd Norris about what we need much, much more of in our race to accumulate the good things of life. Ostensibly, the article is about Freddie Mac, the giant mortgage lending enterprise, as Norris calls it, which had this wee wee loss of a few billions this quarter.

“Freddie Mac historically did not buy subprime loans. But that did not stop it from buying some truly dubious loans. The borrowers may not have qualified as subprime, but many of the loans should have raised questions before they were made.

''The underwriting standards declined,'' said Anthony S. Piszel, Freddie Mac's chief financial officer. ''That was across the board.''

Those who made loans and expected to sell them quickly did not care much about assuring that the loans would be repaid. It turns out that the financial wizards who made it easy to transfer risk also assured that more risks would be taken. They produced innovations like Nina loans, which, Mr. Piszel said, ''found their way into prime space.''

Nina loans?

The abbreviation stands for ''No income, no assets.'' It does not mean the loans went to people without either assets or income, only that the borrowers were not asked if they had either. I had known about ''stated income'' loans -- also known as ''liars' loans'' -- in which the bank took a borrower's word for how much he earned. But I had not realized you could borrow money without even being asked about your income.
Starting this month, Freddie won't guarantee such loans, which seem to default more often than other loans.”

No income, no assets, eh? That describes my whole life so well that I have to have that inscribed on my tombstone. Except, wait! Having no assets means probably not being able to afford the tombstone. Damn. Finally, a consumer good worth saving up for.

PS - Shamefully, I forgot that the 90th birthday of the Russian Revolution fell this year on November 21st. So a big shout out to the thronging Bolshevik ghosts in the underworld. And since I couldn't find a satisfactory translation of even a bit of the Twelve, here's another Blok poem - which has nothing to do with the Revolution, and everything to do with a certain thirst for revolution:

To the Muse

In your hidden memories
There are fatal tidings of doom...
A curse on sacred traditions,
A desecration of happiness;

And a power so alluring
That I am ready to repeat the rumour
That you have brought angels down from heaven,
Enticing them with your beauty...

And when you mock at faith,
That pale, greyish-purple halo
Which I once saw before
Suddenly begins to shine above you.

Are you evil or good? You are altogether from another world
They say strange things about you
For some you are the Muse and a miracle.
For me you are torment and hell.

I do not know why in the hour of dawn,
When no strength was left to me,
I did not perish, but caught sight of your face
And begged you to comfort me.

I wanted us to be enemies;
Why then did you make me a present
Of a flowery meadow and of the starry firmament --
The whole curse of your beauty?

Your fearful caresses were more treacherous
Than the northern night,
More intoxicating than the golden champagne of Aï,
Briefer than a gypsy woman's love...

And there was a fatal pleasure
In trampling on cherished and holy things;
And this passion, bitter as wormwood,
Was a frenzied delight for the heart!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy dargle

I was searching for a thanksgiving music vid and our far flung correspondent in NYC, Mr. T., suggested the Pogues Waxie Dargle. And fuck me if it isn’t the very thing!

Happy thanksgiving readers, patient, patient readers, my web pals! Remember to drink some water before you go to bed, dilute the pints circulating in all your brain wrinkles.

tolstoy again


(Killing of King Umberto, from the Sparticus site)

Both anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent; they have identical goals and an identical enemy—the devil… - Anton Chekhov

On Sunday, June 29th, 1900, King Umberto of Italy in Monza, a little town near Milan where he had a residence, attended mass, then – in the afternoon – distributed prizes at a local sporting event. He awarded the gold medal, got into his carriage, and was then shot four times by Gaetano Bresci, who had come from America precisely to do that. Umberto died almost immediately . Bresci belonged to a small anarchist grou in Patterson, New Jersey, who had sworn to avenge the Milan massacre of 1898, when one hundred striking workers were killed in the streets by the police.

Tolstoy wrote an article about King “Humbert’s” murder, Thou shalt not kill (which is up in the same form on various web sites, with the same typos. I'm a little irritated that the typos haven't been corrected at, for instance, the anarchist site that has a whole section devoted to Tolstoy. So I'm not linking). The article doesn’t mention Bresci. It does mention killing – state killing. It was the type of article that would certainly have gotten him as roundly denounced today – for his moral relativism and moral equivalences and his objective support for terrorism, the quacking of a thousand ducks – as it got him denounced by the establishment back in 1900. It’s bold premise is that we should not be shocked that we sow what we reap. The connection between our previous acts and our present circumstances – the tie of social karma – is always gripped tightly by Tolstoy. Thou Shalt Not Kill begins like this:

“When Kings are executed after trial, as in the case of Charles L, Louis XVI., and Maximilian of Mexico; or when they are killed in Court conspiracies, like. Peter Ill., Paul, and various Sultans, Shahs, and Khans-little is said about it; but when they are killed without a trial and without a Court conspiracy- as in the case of Henry IV. of France, Alexander ll., the Empress of Austria, the late Shah of Persia, and, recently, Humbert- such murders excite the greatest surprise and indignation among Kings and Emperors and their adherents, just as if they themselves never took part in murders, nor profited by them, nor instigated them. But, in fact, the mildest of the murdered Kings (Alexander 11. or Humbert, for instance), not to speak of executions in their own countries, were instigators of, and accomplices and partakers in, the murder of tens of thousands of men who perished on the field of battle ; while more cruel Kings and Emperors have been guilty of hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of murders.”

Tolstoy pursues his theme without any preliminaries. Shaw once wrote that Tolstoy, seeing that pre-war European society was, as it were, sitting in a room into which poisonous gas was seeping, applied the remedies you’d apply in cases of gas poisoning – seizing the victim by the scruff of the neck and marching him around and around over his vociferous protests. Here’s the way Tolstoy seizes the victim:

“The teaching of Christ repeals the law, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth'; but those who have always clung to that law, and still cling to it, and who apply it to a terrible degree-not only claiming an eye for an eye,' but without provocation decreeing the slaughter of thousands, as they do when they declare war- have no right to be indignant at the application of that same law to themselves in so small and insignificant a degree that hardly one King or Emperor is killed for each hundred thousand, or perhaps even for each million, who are killed by the order and with the consent of Kings and Emperors.”

Tolstoy’s point is that chosing to apply a barbaric law thrusts you into a barbaric world. You have dug your own grave. If a Civilization rests on top of thousands or millions of such graves, what is it worth? And Tolstoy is not one who is going to dicker with the thin membrane, spun of a thousand casuistries, that separates war from murder. His description of the army and of Mission Accomplishing heads of states is still effective:
“The crowd are so hypnotized that they see what is going on before their eyes, but do not understand its meaning. They see what constant care Kings, Emperors, and Presidents devote to their disciplined armies; they see the reviews, parades, and manaeuvres the rulers hold, about which they boast to one another; and the people crowd to see their own brothers, brightly dressed up in fools' clothes, turned into machines to the sound of drum and trumpet, all, at the shout of one man, making one and the same movement at one and the same moment-but they do not understand what it all means. Yet the meaning of this drilling is very clear and simple: it is nothing but a preparation for killing.
It is stupefying men in order to make them fit instruments for murder. And those who do this, who chiefly direct this and are proud of it, are the Kings, Emperors and Presidents. And it is just these men- who are specially occupied in organizing murder and who have made murder their profession, who wear military uniforms and carry murderous weapons (swords) at their sides-that are horrified and indignant when one of themselves is murdered.”
In his polemical work, Tolstoy often uses words depicting some form of altered consciousness – hypnotized, stupefied, drunk. The formalist critic, Victor Skhlovsky, in a famous essay in 1919, Art as Technique, used Tolstoy as an example of an artist who can make an object, act or gesture strange by rearranging the way we see it. The essay begins, beautifully, with some generalizations about automatism that apply not just to Tolstoy’s moral vocabulary, but to the connection between Tolstoy’s art and the sense of shock that runs through his polemical essays – that ties them, in ways that Tolstoy might not have admitted, to his most aesthetic works:

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or of speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us. Such habituation explains the principles by which, in ordinary speech, we leave phrases unfinished and words half expressed. In this process, ideally realized in algebra, things are replaced by symbols. Complete words are not expressed in rapid speech; their initial sounds are barely perceived. Alexander Pogodin offers the example of a boy considering the sentence "The Swiss mountains are beautiful" in the form of a series of letters: T, S, m, a, b. [1]

This characteristic of thought not only suggests the method of algebra, but even prompts the choice of symbols (letters, especially initial letters). By this "algebraic" method of thought we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object, perceived thus in the manner of prose perception, fades and does not leave even a first impression; ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten. Such perception explains why we fail to hear the prose word in its entirety (see Leo Jakubinsky's article[2]) and, hence, why (along with other slips of the tongue) we fail to pronounce it. The process of "algebrization," the over-automatization of an object, permits the greatest economy of perceptive effort. Either objects are assigned only one proper feature - a number, for example - or else they function as though by formula and do not even appear in cognition.”


‘We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack.” Surely Skhlovsky must have been thinking of the death of Ivan Ivanovich, who feels a sack closing about himself as he dies. The sack connects automatism to death – and it is a desperate struggle to get out of the sack, to get out of this life of sacks, that I see in Tolstoy – a struggle that constitutes the whole of his moral eminence.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

the embourgeoisification of LI

Well, the debut of my little column for the Austin Statesman has been more auspicious than I ever thought it would be. We even got mentioned in the Boston Globe.

So this should be proof to my long suffering readers that I’m not totally whacked. Hmm, is that good or bad?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

tolstoy and me: a romance

Unfortunately, he is not so wrong, that king of Dahomy, in the interior of Africa, who said not long ago to an Englishman: God made this world for war: all the kingdoms, great and small, have practiced it at all time, although on different principles. – Joseph de Maistre.


Though I have long ago rid myself of an intellectual belief in a personal God (retaining a superstitious belief which it is beyond my power to annihilate, and that follows me like the black dog followed Faust), I have never let go of the old and new testaments – as is obvious from every sentence I write. The King James version leers out at you, like the gargoyles above the lintel of some decayed old manse, with the fug of mold and pee all around it. The prophets between them serve as the best school of politics I know – in particular, the denunciation of elite corruption, seen in the round – seen as the sum of a seemingly disparate set of episodes and habits. The new testament is an altogether iffier thing, and I can understand why Nietzsche thought it was a crime against literature to put the two testaments together. However, the crime, if there is one, is against a classical aesthetic that Nietzsche’s own writings joyfully transgress – in part, obviously, due to the influence of the Bible. Out of the Bible comes the Menippean tradition – rather than out of Menippus, for who the fuck reads fragments of Menippus? Jesus brings home the sugar, while the prophets, like Joni Mitchell’s mom, provide the deeper meaning

I was raised on the Bible, but it wasn’t until I achieved the estate of a man, or at least the age of drinkin’ and legal fuckin’, that I took up Tolstoy. And it is through Tolstoy, still, that I see the prophets or the gospel – as a ruthless means to dispel the cloud of unknowing that can clog up one’s sensorium. See with the eyes in my head and feel with the pads of my fingers those things which we are taught not to look at, though they make up the greater part of our life. Tolstoy had a sense of the shockingness of the gospel, and was willing to go to the line for that shock. That making strange that the Formalists so loved in Tolstoy, it comes in part from the Bible. I’ve been thinking about Tolstoy, lately, thinking that I should look up what he has to say about happiness. Of course, when you start reading Tolstoy, if you are a certain type of person, you can get intellectually drunk. He feeds the desire to slough off the dead life in one convulsive movement, no matter what the cost, like some fur coat in an overheated room. Your skin crawls to do it. That’s a desire that generally doesn’t surface; it stays below, covered, of course, by tv, porn, shopping, exhaustion, and staring in one’s cubicle at flickering screens for hours. The routines, the routines – you can’t leave them, or you are lost.

Tolstoy, then. This is one of the things he says in a letter he wrote to an American pacifist group. It is published in his works as the Letter on non-resistance:

Christian teaching does not lay down laws for everybody, and does not say to people, “You all, for fear of punishment, must obey such and such rules, and then you will all be happy’; but it explains to each individual his position in relation to the world, and lets him see what results, for him individually, inevitably flow from that relation. Christianity says to man 9and to each man separately) that his personal life can have no rational meaning if he counts it as belonging to himself, or as having for its aim worldly happiness for himself or for other people. This is so because the happiness he seeks is unattainable: (1) because, as all beings strive after worldly advantages, the gain of one is the loss of others, and it is most probable that each individual will incur much superfluous suffering in the course of his vain efforts to seize unattainable blessings; (2) because, even if a man gets worldly advantages, the more he obtains the less they satisfy him and the more he hankers after fresh ones; (3) and chiefly because the longer a man lives, the more inevitable become the approach of old age, sickness and death, destroying all possibility of worldly advantages.”

LI is blown away by the fact that Tolstoy, here, anticipates our argument about the positional economy and the creation of emotional customs in which happiness operates as both the norm and the motive – and our argument about the hedonic fallacy, the problem with projecting happiness, a mood, upon circumstances, which are not a mood and can’t feel a mood – and finally, our notion that the happiness culture ruthlessly liquidates the imitatio that distinguishes the ideals and figures of different ages, making all ages align to an ideal of youth, against which they are judged. That Tolstoy merges the positional economy with the market economy wholesale is something that I will let pass for the moment (or maybe not – the liberal moment arises from the realization that the industrial and market system do not inherently create such win-lose relationships), because I’d prefer to take this passage as a directional cue. Since I want to explore the deeply sick reactionary tradition of pessimism, giving it its due, I need to get out of the pessimistic framework for a second to assure my readers that I am not a revolutionary conservative, and that my protest against happiness triumphant is not going to end up leaving us dripping in a bunch of Heideggerian mush.

I am not dragging in Tolstoy here from some whim, mind you. I think Tolstoy represents a break with both the programmatic happiness culture in the 19th century and its sworn enemy, the pessimists. On first glance, one might think that you could just draw a line between Joseph de Maistre, through Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to Tolstoy, and from Tolstoy to your pick of the litter of twentieth century reactionaries. However, even a cursory reading of Tolstoy would disabuse you of this supposition. The line breaks at Tolstoy. The reason that the line breaks is Tolstoy’s absolute turn against violence. The pessimists - and here the dark promptings of de Maistre are the mole in the works – turned to violence not just as a temporary solution, but as a redemptive force. It was Isaiah Berlin who pointed this out in a famous essay on de Maistre. But don’t think LI has gone soft in the head about Isaiah Berlin. His notion is that de Maistre is the godfather of both left and right totalitarianism, and that is an exculpatory gesture that makes cold war liberalism just an innocent accomplice to the building of nuclear threat world. Don’t believe that at all. Let’s just say that liberalism is up to its ass in war culture, and many of its cold war spokesmen spent as much time denying this as they spend pimping for another war, another intervention. From all points of view, Tolstoy’s notion is considered eccentric, or mad, or unworkable, or an excuse to continue the old system.

All of which leads me to… Thou shalt not kill, the Tolstoy essay I’ll look at in my next post, I think.

Monday, November 19, 2007

the winner of the noose award is...

There has lately been a heated contest, among America’s most beloved pundits, for the coveted Strom Thurmond Cup for the Advancement of Racism. Andrew Sullivan, defending his sterling role in the Bell Curve controversy, was of course everybody’s favorite. It was a perfect racist double cross – Sullivan both advocated an obviously racist thesis about the inferiority of blacks and pretended that he was only making a space for an interesting scientific exploration. Sort of like Mission: fear of the Black Planet. Now, the way racism in the white establishment has to travel is through such second hand disguises. You can’t bring out the tar and nooses, like in the old days, although you can indignantly rebut the very idea of rednecks hanging nooses on trees as having anything to do with racism – it has to do with high spirited references to, uh, Westerns.

Such was the state of play until a dark horse, Slate’s own William Saletan, donned the sheets and went for straightforward racism of the good old fashioned type – even backing it up with references to Philip Rushton, which is a little like backing up a thesis about the predominance of Jews in Banking with a reference to Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Slate, being a piece of property of the Washington Post, is certainly surprising us. You would think the Post would be a little averse to becoming a forum for a White Citizens Council discussion – but you’d be wrong! Because Slate is brave… Slate is independent … Slate is contrarian. Thus, the fondness for the cutest, sweetest, butter doesn't melt in my mouth race baiting, but only of the very very very very scientific type, which could only be objected to by, in the immortal words of Saletan himself, liberal creationists! That’s telling us. It is all scientific and cut and dried, this white superiority to that African race.

So, Saletan wins this year’s noose. And I know what I hope he does with it, the punkass bastard.

the disappearance of osama bin laden and the my pet goat presidency

The time seems ripe for going over the way in which the Bush administration deliberately let Obama bin Laden escape from Afghanistan to manipulate an unnecessary and disastrous global war on terror. We’ve done this before, of course. But since we are now in the passenger seat, watching the consequences rush forward through the driver’s window – and since the usual shitheads, the O’Hanlon-Kagan crowd, are suggesting their usual shithead policy to deal with it (send U.S. soldiers that are apparently created by magic to occupy a Pakistan that is just aching and shaking to have its nukes taken away by a loving ally) – it is always a fun and fitting thing to marshal the facts and inferences. Where at one time malign, fucked up behavior on the part of the Bush administration might have seemed implausible, after seven incredible years of devious behaviors, second and third rate thinking, and a consistently juvenile policy of thoughtless aggression, wrapped in an impenetrable aura of entitlement and impunity, our theory seems all the stronger. Dismayingly, it has never made a dent in the blogo-chatter sphere.

The facts are pretty simple. Six years ago, the CIA, which had the most connection with opposition groups in Afghanistan, had succeeded in using a limited American force, in conjunction with a number of Afghani warlord-headed forces (given a misleading unity as the “Northern Alliance”), and supported by heavy air cover, to force the fall of Kabul (November 13) and drive Osama bin Laden’s paramilitary force into the mountainous region southeast of the capital city. The fall of Kabul was greeted as a turning point in the quick war by the press. By December 10, the Defense department was treating the defeat of the Taleban as a fait accompli, and issuing misleading press reports, like this one:

“Al Qaida fighters near Tora Bora are reported to be putting up stiff resistance as the operation to dislodge them from their mountain stronghold continues. U-S officials say the operation is making moderate progress as anti-Taleban forces on the ground push forward on several fronts. The American military is still not sure where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is, but officials believe they have a general idea.
In the southern part of the country, Afghanistan's new interim leader, Hamid Karzai, has settled a dispute between tribal chiefs over who will control Kandahar, which the Taleban surrendered Friday.

Under the agreement, Kandahar's pre-Taleban governor, Gul Agha, will resume his position. He will be assisted by Mullah Naqibullah, who accepted the Taleban's surrender.

Pentagon officials says U-S Marines are having success in preventing armed Taleban and al-Qaida fighters from fleeing southern Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan.”

In actuality, the U.S. marines were not having success in preventing armed Taleban and al Qaida fighters from going into neighboring Pakistan. And in actuality, the U.S. had a pretty good idea that Osama bin Laden was in the cave system in Tora Bora.
Peter Bergen has written several articles about Osama bin Laden’s “disappearing act” – which is more act, obviously, than disappearance. In a 2004 article about Tora Bora, he underlines two things: one is that Tora Bora was a pretty well known location to the Americans – it had been extensively used during the guerilla war financed by the U.S. in the eighties; and the other is that far from the Pentagon throwing in its U.S. marines en masse to capture Osama bin Laden, the Pentagon was being curiously stingy about resourcing the end game:

For some perspective on Jalalabad, I spoke with Dr. Muhammad Asif Qazizada, the deputy governor of Nangarhar, the province that contains Jalalabad. In his office, in a splendid blue-domed nineteenth-century building that was once the winter palace of Afghanistan's kings, Qazizada explained why Jalalabad and the nearby mountainous redoubt of Tora Bora were the perfect places for bin Laden to stage one of history's great disappearing acts. In his early twenties Qazizada worked as a medic in Tora Bora when it was an important base for the Afghan resistance to the Soviets. At the time, he recalled, Tora Bora was a warren of caves and fortifications defended by machine guns and anti-aircraft batteries. Because it offered easy access by foot to Parachinar, a region of Pakistan that juts like a parrot's beak into Afghanistan, it was also an ideal place from which to mount hit-and-run operations against the Soviets. Indeed, bin Laden fought his first battle against the Soviets, in 1987, at Jaji, an Afghan village that abuts Parachinar.

During the 1980s, Qazizada said, Tora Bora was the object of several Soviet offensives, one of them involving thousands of soldiers, dozens of helicopter gun ships, and several MiG fighter jets; so solid were the fortifications that the Soviet offensives were held off by a force of no more than 130 Afghans. For this reason, Qazizada believes, bin Laden chose the region as his hideout and escape route in November of 2001. When the two-week battle of Tora Bora took place shortly afterward, in December, it was fought largely by the forces of local Afghan commanders, supported by small numbers of U.S. Special Forces, who called in intense air strikes against al-Qaeda's positions. But Tora Bora's mountainous topography worked to bin Laden's advantage. "It was difficult for the Americans to attack," Qazizada says, "and there was a way to flee."

What happened next was seen but not seen by the U.S. press. I’ll quote myself, here, from my more extensive post about this, July 28,2006:

“Anyway, I recently came across Army Times reporter Sean Naylor’s account of the battle. According to Naylor, the incompetence factor (although he doesn’t put it so bluntly) can be laid at the feet of General “Kick me in the ass” Franks, who operated in our heroic Afghanistan war as a conduit for the senilities of Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, of course, didn’t want the Afghanistan war to involve regular troops, on the theory that that is where the Russians went wrong. No, we’d used bombing and our super duper special forces – initial decisions that we are paying for today. Anyway, the American force that approached Tora Bora at the end of November, 2001 was extremely small, and depended on Afghan allies that were busy feuding with each other. According to Naylor, as the siege proceeded, the Air Force flew over the twenty mile passage between Tora Bora and Pakistan and recorded “hot spots” on their heat sensing equipment. Now, CENTCOM, unbelievably, had never considered the possibility that Al Qaeda’s forces could escape from Tora Bora – thus, there were no guards on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the hot spot data did provoke some consultation:

“The Generals in Kuwait recommend[ed] bombing the positions as soon as possible. But Franks [who, you will recall, bravely lead our heroic troops from a boat in Florida] and his staff did not see it like that. “They might be shepherds,” was Control Command’s attitude, according to two officers who sat in on the video-teleconferences in which the matter was discussed. At CFLCC that theory didn’t wash. The idea that scores of shepherds were tending to their flocks at 10,000 feet in the middle of winter was implausible.”

Implausible is a kindly word. Let’s recall what was happening back at the scene in Tora Bora. This is from the NYT Magazine’s rather thorough article about it in 2005:

“The American bombardment of Tora Bora, which had been going on for a month, yielded to saturation airstrikes on Nov. 30 in anticipation of the ground war. Hundreds of civilians died that weekend, along with a number of Afghan fighters, according to Hajji Zaman, who had already dispatched tribal elders from the region to plead with bin Laden's commanders to abandon Tora Bora.” – Mary Ann Weaver, NYT, 9/11/05

Recall, also, that at the time Franks was displaying this untoward shepherdophilia, the U.S. was accepting payment from the Northern alliance in captives gathered at random – the camel driver, the Avon salesman, the cab driver – and subjecting them to the waterboarding, beatings, and sometimes murder that they obviously richly deserved.”

The military is still scratchin’ its head, apparently, as to when OBL ‘disappeared’. For years, the standard Bushie defense of what obviously happens when you saturation bomb an area in front of a force and leave its rear untouched by explosive and unguarded by any force was that OBL could be anywhere. Now, one of the things that we have been taught, over the past seven years, is to swallow verbiage that an average six year old could debunk, since that is usually the age, according to Piaget, in which the logical faculties kick in. The age in which the logical faculties kick in for war mongers is obviously much later - sixty-five? seventy-five? hard to put a number on it. Remember, though, that Piaget drop outs run this land of ours. And benefit enormously from their pseudo-incomprehension. It is the system of the big fix. And in that vein: we bet that not a single reporter will, at Bush’s next press conference, press the president on why the facts of the case seem to lead to the conclusion that the U.S. intentionally let OBL escape. And ask whether, now that Pakistan seems caught in an act we have all seen before, that was such a bright idea. In fact, Osama bin Laden is now not mentioned in our King’s present – it upsets his dainty mechanism.

On the other hand, we know that Osama bin Laden is not as dumb as the U.S. press. He made the logical conclusions long ago. And he has followed through on his end of the gentlemen’s agreement. Instead of attacking the U.S. on U.S. soil, again, he has aided in a series of attacks that tiptoe around U.S. soil. Attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Spain and the U.K. To attack, say, NYC again would be a dishonorable act against his host and protector, George Bush.

What a win win situation the two have produced for each other! The GWOT spawned a vast, unnecessary war that generated, in turn, an excuse for an unprecedented and pointless buildup of the military that in turn - oh the dominos! - generated unprecedented profits up and down the line for companies even only peripherally touched by the Santa Claus policy of the Pentagon; Bush sailed into a second term on the comical pretense that he had shown himself a strong leader (when, in fact, we have never had a modern president who is so paralyzed by panic in the face of critical situations - the man who kept reading My Pet Goat as he wondered who he was and why he was there on 9/11 is the same guy all the way through the past six years, a second rate golf pro’s mind stuffed into the body of another rich man’s prodigal son); and after an obvious down period following the disorganization of Al Qaeda in 2002, OBL reconstituted himself as a kingmaker in Pakistan, training the Taleban forces for edging into Afghanistan again, connected to a number of Islamicist groups who have ingratiated themselves with the Pakistani rural population in a number of ways, not least of which is a proto-social welfare system that is more efficient in rushing aid to, say, earthquake victims than the government itself. We are about to hit another harmonic convergence as Musharref increasingly looks like he is doing the dictator’s death spiral, a thing we have seen before. And we will continue to swallow lies and bullshit like troopers on our way to an ever more malformed relationship with the rest of the world.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

How to be a left conservative in one easy lesson

In Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Man, she makes the following shrewd hit at Burke:

There appears to be such a mixture of real sensibility and fondly cherished romance in your composition that the present crisis carries you out of yourself; and since you could not be one of the grand movers, the next best thing that dazzled your imagination was to be a conspicuous opposer.


Wollstonecraft was echoing the suspicion that dogged Burke throughout his career – that he was an Irishman who valued cleverness over sound thinking, celebrity over sense. One of Wollstonecraft’s polemical moves is to crucify Burke’s Reflections on his early essay on the Sublime – an essay that moves from paradox to paradox. Her strategy makes for a few strange paradoxes itself, since basically she portrays Burke as a fashionable sentimentalist – a man of a certain kind of womanly cast – while she herself represents manly reason.

The Burkean paradox in the essay on the sublime out of which his system springs is to separate pain and pleasure as distinct qualities unconnected by the continuum of sensation by which they were defined by people like Hartley – and, in general, in the sensationalist tradition:

Pain and pleasure are simple ideas, incapable of definition. People are not liable to be mistaken in their feelings, but they are very frequently wrong in the names they give them, and in their reasonings about them. Many are of the opinion, that pain arises necessarily from the removal of some pleasure; as they think pleasure does from the ceasing or diminution of some pain. For my part, I am rather inclined to imagine, that pain and pleasure, in their most simple and natural manner of affecting, are each of a positive nature, and by no means necessarily dependent on each other for their existence. The human mind is often, and I think it is for the most part, in a state neither of pain nor pleasure, which I call a state of indifference. When I am carried from this state into a state of actual pleasure, it does not appear necessary that I should pass through the medium of any sort of pain. If in such a state of indifference, or ease, or tranquillity, or call it what you please, you were to be suddenly entertained with a concert of music; or suppose some object of a fine shape, and bright, lively colours, to be presented before you; or imagine your smell is gratified with the fragrance of a rose; or if without any previous thirst you were to drink of some pleasant kind of wine, or to taste of some sweetmeat without being hungry; in all the several senses, of hearing, smelling and tasting, you undoubtedly find a pleasure; yet if I inquire into the state of your mind previous to these gratifications, you will hardly tell me that they found you in any kind of pain; or, having satisfied these several senses with their several pleasures, will you say that any pain has succeeded, though the pleasure is absolutely over? Suppose on the other hand, a man in the same state of indifference, to receive a violent blow, or to drink of some bitter potion, or to have his ears wounded with some harsh and grating sound; here is no removal of pleasure; and yet here is felt in every sense which is affected, a pain very distinguishable. It may be said, perhaps, that the pain in these cases had its rise from the removal of the pleasure which the man enjoyed before, though that pleasure was of so low a degree as to be perceived only by the removal. But this seems to me a subtilty that is not discoverable in nature. For if, previous to the pain, I do not feel any actual pleasure, I have no reason to judge that any such thing exists; since pleasure is only pleasure as it is felt. The same may be said of pain, and with equal reason. I can never persuade myself that pleasure and pain are mere relations, which can only exist as they are contrasted; but I think I can discern clearly that there are positive pains and pleasures, which do not at all depend upon each other.


Such a view of pain and pleasure cannot, obviously, submit to calculus – on the contrary, it not only rejects the utilitarian calculus, but the whole idea of founding societies on ‘indexes of happiness’ in which pain and pleasure, quantified, can be matched against each other. In Burke’s view, it is simply impossible to even speak of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, since this mistakes the essence of happiness. This is what is behind the most famous passage in the Reflections on the Revolution in France:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles, and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in — glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness.

Burke, of course, was writing before Smith’s economics had been joined to Bentham’s utilitarianism. The ‘delightful’ vision of the Queen refers us back to the essay on the sublime once again:

It is most certain that every species of satisfaction or pleasure, how different soever in its manner of affecting, is of a positive nature in the mind of him who feels it. The affection is undoubtedly positive; but the cause may be, as in this case it certainly is, a sort of Privation. And it is very reasonable that we should distinguish by some term two things so distinct in nature, as a pleasure that is such simply, and without any relation, from that pleasure which cannot exist without a relation, and that too a relation to pain. Very extraordinary it would be, if these affections, so distinguishable in their causes, so different in their effects, should be confounded with each other, because vulgar use has ranged them under the same general title. Whenever I have occasion to speak of this species of relative pleasure, I call it Delight …”

Now, there is a sense in which this passage can be overemphasized. In the Great Transformation, Burke does not figure as an opponent of capitalism. He was, in fact, one of Smith’s partisans. It was quite in keeping with Burke’s principles that his loyalty would be at once to an enlightened system that restrained the government from granting monopolies and a feudal political order that largely depended on an ideological monopoly. What interests me, here, is the tension between, on the one side, the advent of an economic system which would profit the upper class for which Burke stood as an advocate, and, on the other side, the gross attitudinal changes that would subvert the legitimacy of the ancien regime order. Burke’s notions about pleasure and pain aren’t mere whims, even if they so appeared to Mary Wollstonecraft, but are fundamental to a philosophical anthropology which reacted against capitalism and socialism (considered to be of the same order), gradually gathering around itself a certain systemeticity, one of gestures and not logic (for it never fully lost its suspicion of systems), with a defense of irreducible human and social qualities that became anti-humanistic insofar as these qualities did not match up with the universal qualities projected by economics, physics, and psychology. This was the great contradiction that tugged at European societies up until 1945 – and when I say tugged, I might add bombed, battled, battered, slaughtered, imprisoned, colonized, and exhausted itself. The pessimism that I mean to hastily trace from Leopardi up to the conservative revolutionaries in Germany arose within this contentious space. Frankenstein’s creature is a casualty of this tension – the new man who comes into the world entirely without the unbought grace of life, though endowed with an irrepressible Lockean potential.

advertisement for myself

I don’t usually advertise my journalism stuff on this blog. But today I will. I started my new column on academic books in the Austin Statesman today. Check it out. The deal is that I will, as the spirit moves the editors at the paper, be doing these roundups of two university press books now and then. The column debuts with a close look at Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms (which, I must say, I deal with mighty handily – my five pages of objections to the book boiled down to a pretty succinct seven paragraph takedown) and James Simpson’s Burning to Read. In the future, I’m going to try to chose books for each column that are a little more related – although making these books rub elbows was fun.

So tell your Ma, tell your Pa, and tell the person you know who works for a university press or who wants to publish some academic book. I think this column might be a first for a regular newspaper. And if it goes well, I’ll become the godfather of the academic publishing world. Those on my right hand I will elevate to their thrones in heaven, those on my left hand I will damn eternally. Or something like that. My friend Dave has often remarked that it is a lucky thing for the world that I never gained either wealth or power, since I have a cruel and dictatorial soul – wrapped in the body of a beggar. True enough.